With jury chosen, Johnny Depp opens defamation case in the United States against his ex-wife Heard

WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) – Lawyers for Hollywood star Johnny Depp presented a jury with an outline on Tuesday of his U.S. defamation case against his ex-wife Amber Heard, the latest chapter in a long legal battle between the two Hollywood stars.

Opening statements began in a Virginia courtroom in a lawsuit Depp, 58, filed against Heard, 35, for $50 million in 2018.

Depp alleges that Heard defamed him when she wrote a December 2018 opinion piece in The Washington Post about being a survivor of domestic violence.

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The article never mentioned Depp by name, but Depp’s attorney Benjamin Chew told jurors on Tuesday it was clear Heard was referring to the Hollywood leading man.

Chew told jurors that Heard published the article on the eve of the release of “Aquaman,” his biggest film to date, to gain publicity and advance his career.

“By choosing to lie about her husband for her own benefit, Amber Heard forever changed Mr. Depp’s life and reputation,” Chew said. “You will hear him tell you the terrible impact it had on his life.”

J. Benjamin Rottenborn, an attorney for Heard, said in his opening statement that Depp was trying to mislead the jury with “crazy conspiracy theories.”

Rottenborn said Heard was telling the truth about the ‘horrible’ abuse she had suffered, but the case really revolves around a narrow legal issue: whether Heard’s opinion piece was protected by free speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

“That’s the question, and that’s what you’re being asked to decide,” Rottenborn told jurors.

“Mr. Depp’s team will try to turn this case into a soap opera,” Rottenborn said. “Why? I’m not really sure, because the evidence isn’t pretty for Mr. Depp.”

A state court judge in Fairfax County, Va., is overseeing the trial, which is expected to last six weeks. A jury was selected on Monday.

Less than two years ago, Depp lost a libel case against The Sun, a British tabloid that called him a “wife beater”. A High Court judge in London ruled that he repeatedly assaulted Heard and made him fear for his life.

In the US case, both Depp and Heard submitted long lists of potential witnesses they could put on the stand.

Heard’s list includes her ex-boyfriend and Tesla (TSLA.O) chief executive Elon Musk, whom she texted about Depp. Actor James Franco is also on the list of potential witnesses.

The Washington Post is not accused in this case. Depp’s attorneys said they filed the case in Fairfax County, outside the District of Columbia, because the newspaper is printed at a facility there. Heard unsuccessfully tried to move the case to Los Angeles, where she and Depp lived.

The United States is a difficult forum for libel plaintiffs, especially public figures like Depp, who faces several hurdles in the Virginia case. Depp must prove with clear and convincing evidence that Heard knowingly made false statements.

Depp and Heard met while filming “The Rum Diary” in 2011 and married four years later. Heard accused Depp of domestic abuse after filing for divorce in 2016.

Heard is known for her roles in “Aquaman” and “Justice League.” She filed her own libel suit against Depp, claiming he defamed her by calling her a liar.

Heard’s counterclaim will be decided at trial. Heard is seeking $100 million in damages from Depp, according to court documents.

In testimony to the High Court in London, Heard said Depp would turn into a jealous alter ego, “the monster”, after using drugs and alcohol and threatening to kill her.

She detailed 14 instances of extreme violence when she said the actor choked, punched, slapped, hit her on the head, choked and kicked her. The London judge accepted 12 of these accounts as true.

Following the November 2020 ruling in the London libel suit, Depp was replaced by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in the third film in the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ franchise, a spin-off of the ‘Harry Potter’ books and films. .

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Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Lisa Shumaker and Howard Goller

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